HELPED RAISE ME
Jim was always around when I was a kid. As he’d done with my mother, he helped raise both my brother Mike and myself.
And maybe because he was such a tough guy, it was all the more amazing when he’d cut loose with a laugh, or tell a joke. His laugh really was infectious, as Mike and I were to find out, much to our chagrin.
See, it turns out Jim had a bunch of jokes in his head that he’d first heard back around World War I.
Most of these jokes were the result of an old Vaudeville act he’d seen, two guys named Moran and Mack, who went by the name The Two Black Crows.
Problem is, these jokes really weren’t funny to us.
Yeah, no, not funny at all.
Before going further, let’s talk about the elephant in the room:
The Two Black Crows were, without doubt, politically incorrect: they were white guys in blackface.
They were precursors to the famous radio comedians Amos ’n’ Andy, but to be fair, if you didn’t know they performed in blackface, you’d likely not be able to tell just by listening.
Their humor wasn’t as painfully racist as many of their contemporaries, but rather more laconic than anything else.
Even though they’re largely forgotten today, they had a pretty successful run back in the early days of the 20th Century.
The team appeared in Vaudeville with W.C. Fields, on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920, and when talkies arrived, they even starred in a couple of feature films for Paramount.
The Two Black Crows became a weekly radio show in 1928, but the act soon ended when Charles Mack died in an automobile accident in 1934.
CORNBALL JOKES START
I was about nine when Jim started telling us about them, around 1975.
My brother Mike and I would be working in my parents’ Western Auto store in Porterville, CA, when out of nowhere Jim would bust out with some cornball joke he’d heard two vaudevillians perform.
One in particular was about these two guys who were going to go down to the Post Office. If you get there first, the one guy said, you make a line. If I get there first, I’ll rub it out.
Or something along those lines.
Vaudeville humor, right? Nothing too sophisticated.
Mike and I were clearly old hands at refined comedy, even at that tender young age.
Jim, that’s not funny, we’d say, that’s stupid.
Nope, Jim would reply. That’s comedy.
So years go by, it’s now the mid-’80s. I’m a theater student at UCLA, and have long since discovered the glory of Old Time Radio.
I’m such an enthusiast that I go to an OTR convention in Los Angeles.
While there, puttering around in the dealer’s room, I happen upon a guy selling old records. REALLY old records, as in 78s.
The vast majority of them are old musical acts, but I notice that a few are comedians like Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor.
'IT HIT ME ...'
Reminded of the comedy albums by Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy I loved when I was a kid, I began to wonder if people made comedy albums even back in the day of 78s…?
I asked the dealer if this was the case, and he said absolutely, lots of old comedians recorded their routines on vinyl.
That’s amazing, I thought, not putting two and two together until he said the words, “Quite a few vaudeville acts recorded their routines for posterity.”
And all of a sudden, it hit me. The Two Black Crows were vaudevillians. Any chance THEY could’ve recorded their stuff…?
“Absolutely,” said the dealer. “I’ve seen a few of their records, think I even own a couple.”
COOL CHRISTMAS IDEA
It was November at this point, and an idea suddenly hit me, fully formed in my head.
Christmas was a scant five or six weeks away. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to let Jim hear voices that had been silent for half a century?
Scott Corbett was the record dealer that day. He’s an amazing guy, and when I told him about my idea, he became my own private record detective, a guy who crawled through not only his own musty, dusty record collection, but sifted through others’ as well.
Scott originally thought the Crows had made a total of five records, and he was pretty sure he could get me four of them, but I’d get these periodic phone calls, sounding like an old noir-ish gumshoe tracking down a misbehaving spouse.
“Turns out there are six records, and I’m pretty sure I can get five,” he’d tell me, then soon call back and say,
“Spoke too soon, there are SEVEN records, and I’ve got a line on SIX!”
Every time I heard about a new one, I’d yell, “Buy it!”
Which was pretty bold for a poor college kid. I was in desperate straits that year, and I probably had a budget of about $50 to spend on Christmas. Total, for everybody’s gift, combined.
Jim’s present alone turned out to be about $150, but I didn’t care.
I somehow knew I’d stumbled upon that thing we always crave at the holidays: the Perfect Gift Idea.
Given his age and precarious health, it seemed as though this might be Jim’s last Christmas. I wanted it to be a truly special one, so “Buy it!” became my new mantra.
OH, OH ...
I drove out to Scott Corbett’s place in Ontario, about an hour out of LA, to pick up the records, and soon realized I had a dilemma on my hands:
I was now the proud owner of half a dozen 78 RPM records, with nary a record player in sight.
I didn’t own one, and more importantly, neither did Jim. Yikes!
What was I supposed to do now with an old 78 LP record of the Two Black Crows comedy act?
NEXT STEP ...
Cassettes were the order of the day, so doing a vinyl/cassette transfer seemed the best idea, but if I couldn’t track down a 78 player, how was I supposed to dub them?
That’s when Bobb Lynes stepped in, a friend from my radio club - and the host of The Old Time Radio Show on KCRW at the time - who told me he actually had a 78 player and might be able to help me.
Only one problem: he couldn’t connect his 78 player to his cassette deck.
He could connect it to his reel-to-reel recorder, however, which he could subsequently hook up to his cassette deck.
Whew. You gotta love Old Time Radio enthusiasts; they’re a wealth of forcibly retired media.
At this point, my only problem was that Jim didn’t even own a cassette player.
Sigh. One quick trip to K-Mart and that, too, was solved. An extra twenty bucks at this point was the least of my worries.
Christmas couldn’t arrive soon enough.
My family, who were all as eager to see how this gift went over as I was, were staying with two friends of ours up in Porterville, where Jim still lived, and where we gathered Christmas morning to exchange gifts.
Even our friends were in on it by now, both of them eager to watch this scene unfold.
When every other gift had been exchanged, I reached for the one last present remaining under the tree.
'WHO'S IT FROM?'
“Hey Jim,” I said, “this one looks like it’s for you.”
“Who’s it from?” he asked gruffly. One thing about Jim: he acted tough, but it always cracked us up.
“Uh, it’s from me,” I replied.
He nodded and peeled the wrapping away, revealing the cassette player.
'WHAT THE ...?'
“What the hell is it?” he asked.
“It’s a cassette player, Jim,” I said.
“What do you do with it?” he asked.
“You, uh, you play cassettes on it,” I answered.
A shake of his head.
“I ain’t got any blankety-blank cassettes,” he said.
Well, he didn’t really say blankety-blank, he took the Lord’s name in vain, but hey, this is a Christmas story, remember?
AND THEN ...
At this point, everybody in the room smiled.
“Well then, you should probably open this,” I said, pointing to a much smaller, wrapped box.
He did, and carefully examined my hand-written cassette label. MORAN AND MACK, it read, THE TWO BLACK CROWS.
“Oh my God,” he whispered, and all the gruffness was gone.
He turned it over in his hands; having never used a cassette tape, he had no idea how to open the box.
He held it out to me, and said, “Can you…?”
There was a flurry of activity on my part, a quick lesson in cassette tape function. Jim held the player up to his ear, and I pressed PLAY.
THE OLD RECORDING
There was no magic moment, not right away.
In fact, all there was for me was fear. Heart-stopping, stomach-plummeting fear.
See, I didn’t have time to listen to the cassette before wrapping it up, and despite working so hard to procure these recordings, what I heard most of on this cassette was static and hiss.
Lots and lots of noise, but not much comedy.
COULD HE HEAR?
And Jim, as it turns out, was hard of hearing. Extremely so, he was literally almost deaf.
You often had to scream for Jim to hear you, and these recordings … well, they couldn’t scream loud enough.
Jim had the volume turned up to 11, he had it pressed hard against his ear, but from the blank look on his face, it appeared he couldn’t hear a word of it.
All that work, wasted. My heart sank. I literally felt lost, utterly forlorn.
I had worked so hard for this moment, but completely forgot Jim’s hearing problem.
Still, I didn’t give up hope. I didn’t cry, though I was so depressed I felt like it.
Instead, I just sat on the floor and watched Jim.
His hands shook slightly with palsy, his head nodded a bit as well, and his eyes were closed as though that would help him isolate the sound, catch the words as they were flung from the player.
And before I knew it, I heard the words, scratchy with hiss and almost lost among pops,
“I’ll meet you down at the Post Office at 7:00. If I get there first, I’ll make a blue line. If you get there first, you rub it out.”
My brother looked at me and I knew we were both reliving that moment at Western Auto when we were kids.
That was the line, that was the joke…!
Jim opened his eyes and looked right at me. He nodded, and his sage, self-satisfied smile seemed to whisper, “Now THAT’S comedy.”
That was when I started to cry. As did my mom, and most everybody in the room.
But still, I sat and I watched him.
I stared at Jim’s face, and the hands that held the tape player to his ear, and as I did, it occurred to me:
Between the cassette deck playing those long-ago recordings and Jim’s ear that took them all in - in that half-inch between the plastic case and Jim’s head - the last 60 years didn’t exist.
THE OLD VOICES
Jim was hearing voices he hadn’t heard since he was a child in World War I, voices he’d originally heard in a darkened vaudeville house, and he’d never once considered that he might hear them again.
And while his eyes remained closed and his mind swam in memory, for those few moments, in those few inches, time ceased to exist, and he heard those voices as though they were new.
And why? Because all those years ago, someone had the brilliant idea of recording those words.
LEAVES A LEGACY
That was when I knew: the spoken word is powerful.
The spoken word can be miraculous. It isn’t always. But when it is, it’s glorious.
When comedians lay down their routines, or authors have their work recorded, it leaves a unique legacy behind; more than just words on a page, these recordings become history we can hear for years to come.
And I knew then that this was something I wanted to be involved in.
I didn’t suddenly dedicate my life to becoming an audiobook narrator.
No, by no means, the words, “Aha, books on tape!” didn’t echo portentously inside my mind, but still, I knew I wanted to be a part of something like that, to record something that could live on long after me.
MORE CHRISTMAS RECORDINGS
As it turns out, Jim had another 10 or so ‘last Christmases’ after that, and I was thankful for every one of them.
And each year, I’d make more and more recordings of other things he hadn’t heard in decades, a month’s worth of old Lum and Abner radio shows, that kind of thing.
But even 10 more years weren’t enough. Jim passed away very soon after Christmas of 1994, and although it was 11 months later that we spent our first Christmas without him, I was very lonely that year.
AND TODAY ...
To this day, I still have the compilation of The Two Black Crows I gave Jim that year, the politically incorrect mix tape, if you will, and even though those recordings are now online in mp3 format, I still plug the cassettes in when I want to hear them.
They just sound better that way.
So that’s it. In many ways it was The Perfect Christmas Gift, because I wasn’t just giving Jim some old recordings - what I gave him was the past. His past.
And now, all these years later, when I’m blessed enough to make my living making recordings that, who knows, someone might treasure, or perhaps stumble upon years after I’m gone, all these years later, when someone asks me why I have such a passion for what I do, I remember Jim, and I smile.
I narrate audiobooks, and because I do, I get to speak to the future.
Thanks for listening, and Merry Christmas. Scott Brick.
ABOUT SCOTT ...
Scott Brick is an actor and writer who ventured into narrating audiobooks in 2000, and as he describes, quickly found himself embraced by the audio world. He's won more than 40 Earphones Awards for his narrating skills, as well as the 2003 Audie Award for Dune: The Butlerian Jihad. After recording some 250 titles in five years, AudioFile Magazine named Brick “one of the fastest-rising stars in the audiobook galaxy,” and proclaimed him a Golden Voice. Now having recorded well over 400 titles, Brick also sells audiobooks he has narrated at his website.